In 1974, the Twin Cities regional parks system was established by the Minnesota Legislature to preserve, protect and develop regional recreational open space for public use. Each park was preserved because of its significant regional natural resources. Since that time, more parks and trails have been added to this amazing system, which contributes to the metro area’s high reputation for livability.
Once the regional parks were created, park-management units (counties, park districts and cities) started adding amenities. Picnic shelters, boat ramps and fishing piers contributed to everyone’s enjoyment, and paved trails allowed for accessibility for people of all abilities.
In the 1990s and 2000s, management units started adding amenities that made our regional parks a lot more than natural preserves. Today, Elm Creek Park Reserve has a tubing hill and a ski center with lighted cross-country trails. Bunker Hills Regional Park has a wave pool and a golf course. Baker Park Reserve has an extensive campground, a beach area and golf course. Lake Elmo Park Reserve has a man-made swimming lake and lighted cross-country-ski trails, and Hyland Lake Park Reserve offers skiing and snowboarding.
Over the next 25 years, more development is planned under the Metropolitan Council’s 2040 vision, including expanding the regional trail system to 1,000 miles. Over the past year, the Star Tribune has had articles on new parks and trails in Edina, Scott County, Washington County and in Minneapolis, including St. Anthony Falls, where trails deep below in the East Bank gorge are being considered. In Bloomington, there are plans for a paved trail through the Minnesota River bottoms, and Dakota County started construction this month to blast Mississippi River bluffs for a trail through Spring Lake Park Reserve.
The Twin Cities’ parks have an abundance of built amenities and paved trails that draw visitors and revenue. However, all of this built infrastructure must be recognized as separating people from the very natural environment for which the parks were preserved. Even those parks designated as park reserves that must keep 80 percent of their space undeveloped have fragmented their large natural areas and habitats with paved trails.
The result is that there are lots of parks filled with lots of stuff and crisscrossed with paved trails but few truly natural retreats left in the Twin Cities area, especially near the urban core.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park, in Eagan and Apple Valley, is one of the rare exceptions where visitors can still find a sense of “wilderness” in the metro area. This natural oasis is a valued and beloved complement to the many built-up and built-through regional parks. It is a place where one can still find some sense of nature as being larger than oneself. It caters to minimal-impact forms of recreation such as birding, hiking, trail running, and cross-country skiing that are safely separated from its destination mountain-bike trail system. It is one of the reasons “forever wild” became the Dakota County parks’ slogan.
Lebanon Hills has been preserved because its master plans have held near to the original regional park mandate regarding preserving and protecting significant natural resources. That is, until now.
Dakota County commissioners are about to vote on a new master plan for the park. The county’s plan adheres to their vision for a 200-mile Greenway Regional Trail System with Lebanon Hills as its hub. Among other infrastructure additions, the plan’s 6-mile Connector Trail through the park is proposed as a multiuse (wheelchairs, elderly, families, and bikes) end-to-end route (not looped) connecting to county greenway trails (designed for high-speed bikes) on three edges of the park.
This proposal is a very different direction for Lebanon Hills. It will degrade every one of the park’s current high-quality, low-impact forms of recreation. Most disturbing is that this plan will forever destroy the opportunity for Twin Cities residents to experience large, minimally developed parkland so close to home.
Dakota County should be proposing a visionary park plan that respects Lebanon Hills’ unique and valuable sense of wilderness. A plan focused on a large, healthy natural environment — and innovative ways for city residents of all ages and abilities to enjoy and learn about it. A plan designed to draw visitors and revenue exactly because it offers an escape from the built environment.
Instead, Dakota County commissioners appear on track to choose to build up and build through Lebanon Hills and offer the same types of amenities and trails that the park system already has in abundance across the metro area. The entire regional parks system will be diminished if this plan is approved.
The public comment period on the Revised Lebanon Hills Development Plan ends on Feb. 25. The County Board is expected to vote on the plan in early March. Send comments to the Dakota County planning department at email@example.com (952-891-7000) and to members of the Dakota County Board at firstname.lastname@example.org (651-438-4418).
Maryann Passe is vice president of Wilderness in the City.